From Our SEL Field Notebook: Connecting Research With Educators A Conversation With Dr. Laura E. Hernández

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Learn how research, policy, and practice intersect from Dr. Laura Hernández, Senior Researcher at the Learning Policy Institute in Palo Alto, California. Dr. Hernández’s research and writing about deeper learning, design principles for schools, and restorative approaches in schools are fundamental for teachers and school leaders anticipating the 2021–2022 school year.

Dr. Laura E. Hernández is a Senior Researcher at the Learning Policy Institute and co-leads their Deeper Learning team. She holds a PhD in Education Policy from the University of California, Berkeley, where she was a National Academy of Education/Spencer Dissertation Fellow. She received an MST from Pace University in New York City and a BA in Political Science from the University of California, Los Angeles.

Let’s talk a little bit about your journey to where you are now. You were a teacher for years before you entered the research and policy side of education. Can you tell me about your classroom experience?

Like many educators, I decided to pursue education as my life’s work because of early exposure to the work of Paulo Freire, and understanding the liberatory promise and power of education, the role that it played in my own life, and the potential to help eradicate systems of oppression and enable liberation.

But with that said, I always instinctually believed that I would wear different hats, and I knew that I had to start as a teacher. Part of the educational journey was the revelation that people who make decisions about schools often don’t have a lot of teaching experience. To me, it was an absolutely essential part of my journey. That’s how I entered and ended up staying nine years in the profession. I taught for five years in New York City at a traditional public school at the elementary level, and then I moved back to southern California where I’m from, and worked at a charter school, where I taught seventh grade English.

Having been situated in those particular settings, and understanding how policies were influencing what I could and couldn’t do in classrooms, I had systems-level questions that were starting to percolate up for me: what enabling equity-oriented policy could look like, and how it could enable effective practices on the ground. I wanted to pursue a research journey, and ended up getting my doctorate from UC Berkeley. After graduating, I had built my muscle as a doctoral student in creating rigorous research around educational policy and dynamics, but I hadn’t necessarily built the level of muscle around how you actually communicate that effectively to a broad audience of decision-makers. And that’s what brought me to the Learning Policy Institute [LPI], because not only do we do rigorous research in terms of the kind of the questions that we’re asking and the ideas that we’re pursuing, but we have a very strong muscle in terms of how we communicate this research to the field and make it stick in different ways.

What is your role at LPI?

I’m currently a senior researcher, which means I conduct and/or manage original research efforts in response to emerging questions coming up in the field. Part of my job is to synthesize research in the field and package it in a way that’s accessible, that speaks to the needs and questions people on the ground will have. I am the co-lead of the Deeper Learning team, which is also referred to as the whole-child education team. Deeper learning is something that is embedded in whole-child education. It’s a rich learning experience and context.

But we realize that the work that we’re doing in this particular area is more comprehensive than just the pedagogical practices. It’s also about climate, social-emotional learning, and integrated student support. One of the things we try to do is create a collective identity about the work that we’re doing in this area. We try to avoid being siloed by projects and always make sure we’re doing cross-communication around different work. It’s us coming together and talking about how our work overlaps and how we can build off the ideas.

There are so many parallels to the way schools operate—it’s easy to be siloed in your own classroom and not have the opportunity to make those connections. But the best work happens when you can make those connections. The idea of deeper learning seems like something that would have come into real focus during the pandemic as a place that students and teachers were missing when they were learning remotely. Is that an accurate reflection? How did the pandemic change the way you’re looking at this work?

That’s an excellent question. A key part of deeper learning is grappling with real-world and complex problems, and trying to find a way forward and persisting, learning through that in various, probably nonlinear ways. To me, that sounds very much like the last year and a half for everybody.

There is this broader discourse around learning loss, but the very definition of deeper learning is suggesting that there has been quite a bit of learning that has already happened. It just doesn’t look like the traditional way. To me, we’ve all been immersed in a deeper learning project of sorts without knowing it. There are obviously a lot of people who were interested in a kind of deeper learning pedagogies and inquiry-based learning before the pandemic, but maybe one of the unintended consequences of it is that we may have a deeper knowledge and an appreciation of what deeper and inquiry-based learning actually looks like, on a personalized individual level.

Rightfully, we think about teaching and learning practices with the student at the center. But for educators to really understand and create those rich learning experiences for young people, they need to experience them, too. That’s rarely how we were taught. I know I wasn’t taught like that. It’s not necessarily the norm in schools of education, for example, or in-service or
pre-service learning opportunities. Having immersive learning experiences where you can develop the skill set, the competencies, and also the empathy of what the process feels like for learners is absolutely critical. Again, maybe a silver lining of everything that has occurred this last year and a half is building that sort of orientation, because it takes a bit of doing and seeing to believe it.

I’m so glad you brought up learning loss the way you did. We’ve all learned some things about ourselves that we didn’t know over the past year; we’ve built skills and resilience. But then at the same time, there’s a sense out there that learning has been lost, that there’s some learning that should have happened but didn’t. Your point that deeper learning has occurred seems like something that may be lost in the larger “learning loss” conversation. How can we refocus or reframe that conversation?

I wish I had the full solution. First, I’m using learning loss in this conversation to acknowledge that that’s the public discourse, but that is not how we would describe the kind of moment in time that we’re in. I do want to acknowledge that there was a level of disengagement, so there may have been disciplinary content that wasn’t as accessible or as easily internalized. But we’ve adopted the term “accelerated,” as in “how do we accelerate learning.” Because if you’re starting from a deficit orientation, it’s a slippery slope to interventions and more remediation, and that means less robust learning experiences, which we know are actually less effective for accelerating learning.

Think about the deeper kind of learning, the holistic elements that need to be taken up in schools at this particular moment. We’re still in a moment of chaos, even if things feel a bit more calm, and a new moment of unknown. It’s important for us to keep tabs on what the science tells us and what research tells us is important, even amidst the urgency of the moment.

That’s a great reminder. One of the things we always talk about at Center for Responsive Schools is the first six weeks of the school year being a time to focus on building community and getting to know students, and not jump right into pushing as much content as you can out of a sense of urgency. It’s important to take that time so that you can then accelerate learning, but you can’t do that if you don’t have that foundation. It’s wonderful that places like LPI are bringing the focus back to what we know is effective. Some of your work has focused on this opportunity to intentionally restart, to come back and do things differently. What does that new vision of schools look like?

LPI has just released design principles for K–12 schools, putting the science of learning and development into action. It is
a comprehensive document and playbook, essentially, that really lays out the practices and structures that schools can adopt and integrate, depending on their needs and their community’s—something that would be personalized to the school. It’s a framework for how we can enable school transformation that is fully based on scientific research, but also completely equity-driven.

There are a lot of practices and structures noted in the playbook, but the overarching vision and structure is based on five different components. Our vision of transformation can be guided with this overarching framework, which is an attention to positive developmental relationships and the structures and practices that support that; practices that enable environments filled with safety and belonging; environments that nurture rich learning experiences and knowledge development; environments that integrate cognitive, social, and emotional learning; and a system of supports in place that can enable student success while also nurturing their assets. It’s also making sure that they have opportunities to live and thrive.

So that’s the vision. We have grounded the work in the science of learning and development, which suggests that these five components should be attended to and integrated. The key part of the work is that if you really want to enable academic success, all of the components need to be in place and well implemented. Learning is optimized and amplified when all five of those components come together.

That’s a lot to do as you’re restarting and reopening. One of the challenges of meeting the moment is how do we distill what we have in the playbook into what needs to happen in the fall. This playbook is a long-term, transformation project. To me, the challenge of the moment is thinking immediate needs, because of the sense of urgency, but also thinking about
what does this mean two, three, or four years from now. Even those time spans may not be fully sufficient to see complete change. But at the same time, it is a long-term investment project, not just in terms of funding but also related to personnel, mindset, practices, and culture—all of this is going to take a long time. And if this is the ultimate goal, then how can we incrementally get there?

What projects are next for you?

There are some more traditional research-related things that are starting to come back up on the priority list, one of which is a set of research briefs that we’re set to curate. I’m going to help either their development by being a thought partner or an actual author on a series of briefs that are derived from LPI’s whole-child education report, one of our seminal reports. What we’re trying to do is take some of that work, particularly the work and practices that are focused on school climate, and create targeted briefs that elevate and define certain practices. The first of these briefs, on a restorative approach to equitable education, was already published on a restorative approach to equitable education. On the heels of that one, we are going to have a research brief on restorative practices. That’s a phrase that gets used a lot in the field, so we’ll be defining what restorative practices are, what they look like in practice, and what policies or structures need to be in place to really be able to enable their effective implementation.

Similarly, we’ll have another one that focuses exclusively on identity, and safe and culturally responsive learning practices, and one on the creation of relationships at schools. What we’re trying to do is make these into more digestible, focused resources that policymakers and community groups can use to help them understand the practices and potentially help agitate for or advocate for some structures and policies that enable them.

The other project is also research-related, on the way that the science of learning and development are embodied and uniquely manifested in a community school setting. We’re not only going to be looking at how those practices are manifested in community schools, but also how policy infrastructure can enable them to be implemented and sustained. What we’re trying to understand is how well-established district practice is helping individual community schools not only have integrated student supports and health clinics and things of that nature that many people associate exclusively with community schools, but also how that policy then enables all of the other elements around school climate improvements and instructional improvement. So it’s ambitious! But what we’re thinking about will be really instructive to the field, especially with all the investments in community schools that are happening at the state and federal levels right now.

You can find more information and background on this conversation and on Dr. Hernández’s research in the following.

Design Principles for Schools: Putting the Science of Learning and Development Into Action by Linda Darling Hammond, Pamela Cantor, Laura E. Hernández, Abby Schachner, Sara Plasencia, Christina Theokas, and Elizabeth Tijerina. LPI Report, June 8, 2021.

The California Way: The Golden State’s Quest to Build an Equitable and Excellent Education System by Roberta C. Furger, Laura E. Hernández, and Linda Darling Hammond. LPI Report, February 21, 2019.

A Restorative Approach for Equitable Education by Jennifer DePaoli, Laura E. Hernández, Robreta C. Furger, and Linda Darling Hammond. LPI Brief, March 16, 2021.

Supporting a Restorative Opening of U.S. Schools by Jennifer DePaoli, Laura E. Hernández, and Linda Darling Hammond. LPI Blog, August 5, 2020.

Social Justice Humanitas: A Community School Approach to Whole Child Education by Marisa Saunders, Lorea Martinez, Lisa Flook, and Laura E. Hernández. LPI Report, May 10, 2021.